Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The Sun is made of plasma

This image covers an area 22,600 miles wide on the Sun's surface, covered in plasma divided into "cells" (Image: NSO/NSF/AURA)

Perhaps you've heard a lot about plasma, which makes up the “flames” on the surface of the Sun. But what exactly is it? Just as we find three states of matter here on Earth—solid, liquid, or gas—there is also a fourth state in space, plasma.

When there is a very intense heat incident on some matter, electrons are ripped from the atoms, which results in free electrons and atomic nuclei devoid of negative electrical charge (the negative charge comes precisely from the electrons), which are called ions. When scientists speak of “charged particles from the Sun” they are referring to these ions.

Ionization happens when high energies are applied to atoms, which can happen with high electrical voltage or high energy radiation. When ionized matter is a gas, it is called plasma. This “soup” of free electrons, ions and neutral particles is not chaotic, but curiously organized and “acts” collectively.

One of the very useful properties of plasma is that it is influenced by electromagnetic fields, which can “control” or rather drive the movements of charged particles in the plasma and create waves that accelerate the particles to high speeds. The Sun's magnetic fields, for example, create plasma eruptions, called solar winds .

When these solar winds approach Earth, the plasma interacts with our planet's magnetic field and the charged particles are driven to the poles, where they manage to reach a lower altitude and interact with the ionosphere, creating the auroras. Relativistic black hole jets are also the result of the plasma being driven by magnetic fields towards the object's poles. So the sun doesn't "catch fire" , as is common to imagine!

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